Friday, March 25, 2005

The Right To Be Irrational

Recently, the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) decided to stop using rBGH, an genetically engineered bovine growth hormone manufactured by Monsanto.

Monsanto threatened a lawsuit - this thuggish tactic had been successful in a similar case - but it eventually backed down.

Now, its op-ed shills are working overtime on damage control. For some reason, they tend to work in pairs; a new op-ed by Alex Avery and Terry Witt is typical of the pro-Monsanto goon squad in every respect. The host newspaper's unwillingness to explain the authors' affiliations is also typical. Avery is with the Center for Global Food Issues, a biotech front group run by the ultra-right Hudson Institute. Terry Witt is executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a phony environmentalist group whose board of directors includes representatives of timber companies, agribusiness, and - wonder of wonders - Monsanto.

Here's what Avery and Witt have to say about the Tillamook case:

Having failed to hoodwink the FDA, anti-biotech activists have switched to directly attacking companies. Over the past year, the Tillamook Creamery, the second largest cheese producer in the United States, has been the target. Rick North of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility led the campaign. With the help of an army of fellow activists -- many backed by organic food companies -- they inundated Tillamook with so-called "consumer complaints."
Oddly enough, TCCA doesn't exactly see things that way:
In speaking with Cheese Market News, North says PSR's campaign was just one of several factors that led the TCCA board to decide to drop rBGH. And both North and TCCA Corporate Communications Manager Christie Lincoln are careful to say that the TCCA board had voted on this issue in May 2004; PSR only started its heavy grass roots efforts - comprising roughly 6,500 postcards - in the fall of 2004.

They can take credit for it, Lincoln says of advocacy groups, but the decision was made independently of the actions by the groups and had more to do with where TCCA's marketing team sees the market heading.
In other words, TCCA did what all good businesses do: it listened to customers, and it anticipated and adapted to changing market conditions. When a normal, consumer-oriented business has an unpopular product, it assumes there's something wrong with that product. Biotech firms, by contrast, assume there's something wrong with the consumer:
Without prompting, consumers rarely, if ever, mention farm production issues such as rbST -- unless they are the target of a fear-based propaganda campaign.
That's simple enough. Consumers don't know anything about factory-farm production methods. But if they think they do, it's because "activists in consumer clothing" are manipulating and misleading them.

Still, if you want a true free-market system, you have to leave choice up to the consumer. And the fact is, consumers are irrational. No one in the history of the world has ever needed a pet rock, or a pair of fuzzy dice. Our economy is based largely on imaginary and irrational needs, and many people have gotten very, very rich by inculcating and catering to those needs. It's only when public irrationality results in a refusal to buy that it becomes a problem worthy of right-wing hysteria.

Monsanto flunkies like Avery and Witt like to pretend that the sole issue is whether or not rBGH is safe. It's true that the FDA approved it ten years ago, though I can't see why I should believe - given recent events - that this demonstrates anything more than Monsanto's well known clout with regulatory agencies. It's worth noting that rbST is not approved for use in Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, or Australia.

What Avery and Witt fail to understand is that people don't like or trust Monsanto. It's invented some of the least popular chemical products of all times - products like Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs. It bribes foreign officials and falsifies data, and it's notoriously litigious and belligerent in its dealings with its opponents. For many consumers, the mere fact that Monsanto developed a given chemical is reason enough not to feed it to their children. I don't think that's irrational. But even if it were, consumers have a right to buy - and not to buy - whatever they like, for whatever reasons are compelling to them. Or at least, that's what free-market fanatics keep telling me.

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